British court reopens case against BHP for Doce River disaster

Class action brought by more than 200,000 Brazilians seeks 5 billion pounds in compensation for social and environmental damage in Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo

Resplendor (MG) - Imagem aérea mostra a a lama no Rio Doce, na cidade Resplendor ( Fred Loureiro/ Secom ES) Resplendor (MG) - Imagem aérea mostra a a lama no Rio Doce, na cidade Resplendor ( Fred Loureiro/ Secom ES)

The London Court of Appeals decided on Tuesday, July 27, to reopen a lawsuit against the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, a partner of the Brazilian company Vale in the Samarco mining venture and, therefore, jointly responsible for the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam in 2015 in the town of Mariana, state of Minas Gerais.

As a result of this legal decision, the group formed by 200,000 Brazilian claimants can now appeal a ruling passed by the High Court of Manchester that dismissed the case in November 2020. The class action represents companies, indigenous communities, churches and municipalities. The group is seeking compensation of 5 billion pounds (R$35.8 billion) for the social and environmental damage caused by the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam. 

The disaster caused 19 deaths and affected at least 1.2 million people, according to data from the Doce River Basin Committee of Affected People. More than 40 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings spilled into the Doce River, from the state of Minas Gerais to the coast of neighboring Espírito Santo.

In its decision this week, the judges on the London court stated that “while we fully understand the considerations that led the judge to the conclusion that the claim should be rejected, we believe that the appeal has a real prospect of success”.

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Redress in the Doce River disaster 

The people and organizations affected by the disaster adopted the strategy of taking their case to the British courts on account of the barriers they face seeking redress in Brazil. 

Although the federal courts in Minas Gerais have set up a system of compensation for the victims, Judge Mário de Paula Franco Júnior, of the 12th Federal Court of Minas Gerais, who is responsible for the case, has had his impartiality called into question by the Federal and Minas Gerais State Public Prosecutor’s Offices and by the Federal and Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo State Public Defender’s Offices, according to the legal website ConJur. These organizations claim that the case has been moving too slowly and disrespecting the affected communities. 

“The Doce River disaster is unfortunately still being renewed every day, as the affected people and communities and even the Federal Prosecutor’s Office have stated repeatedly,” said Julia Neiva, coordinator of the Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. According to Neiva, “there has not been adequate, comprehensive and fair redress, as recommended by international human rights law. The weakening of the control bodies and institutions corroborates this process of non-redress, and there is significant influence from the too close relationship between companies and governments”. She went on to say that “the situation in Brazil is not encouraging. The Environmental Licensing Bill, now in the Senate, could unfortunately lead to more disasters like this”.

The role of the Renova Foundation, which was set up by the companies that caused the disaster to cater to the victims, is also being challenged in court due to problems in its management. The charges were made by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, a key organization in the protection and defense of the affected people and communities. “Since then, we have thought that the Renova Foundation was created as a front to protect the image of these mining companies. Unfortunately, after so long, there is no longer any doubt that the Renova Foundation has served much more as a means of limiting the responsibility of the companies than as an effective agent of human, social and environmental redress,” said the prosecutor Edmundo Dias Netto Junior, in an interview with Conectas, Cáritas and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

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